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Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon

Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon

4.7 3
by Bronwen Dickey

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The controversial story of one infamous breed of dog--a New York Times Bestseller ("Animals" list).

When Bronwen Dickey brought her new dog home, she saw no traces of the infamous viciousness in her affectionate pit bull. Which made her wonder: How had the breed—beloved by Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller—come to be known as a brutal


The controversial story of one infamous breed of dog--a New York Times Bestseller ("Animals" list).

When Bronwen Dickey brought her new dog home, she saw no traces of the infamous viciousness in her affectionate pit bull. Which made her wonder: How had the breed—beloved by Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller—come to be known as a brutal fighter? Dickey’s search for answers takes her from nineteenth-century New York dogfighting pits to early twentieth‑century movie sets, from the battlefields of Gettysburg to struggling urban neighborhoods. In this illuminating story of how a popular breed became demonized--and what role humans have played in the transformation--Dickey offers us an insightful view of Americans' relationship with their dogs.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Laurel Braitman
Like the pit bull itself, this book is sturdy, complicated and resists easy categorization. Dickey's central argument: We created a group of dogs to be loyal, steadfast and occasionally intimidating, only to use those traits against them as markers of class and potential criminality.
Publishers Weekly
Dickey, a contributing editor at the Oxford American, didn’t know much about pit bulls, other than the fact that some consider them dangerous, until she and her husband adopted one. She became more interested as she looked into the curious history of this unfairly maligned animal. Dickey digs deep, investigating dog fighting and breeding, and interviewing more than 350 people, including dog trainers, animal control officers, and animal behaviorists. Her research illuminates many of the facts and exposes many of the myths surrounding pit bulls and dogs in general. As she quickly learns, a pit bull is more of a body type than a breed; many species fall under the general classification. Further, many of these same animals were considered to be terrific, loving, loyal pets until the early 1970s, when dog fighting burst into the collective consciousness along with high urban crime rates . That resulted in an entirely different perspective on bigger breeds such as rottweilers, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, and especially pit bulls. Though media-fed panics regarding certain breeds are nothing new, the bad PR surrounding pit bulls has stuck, due to unrealistic expectations of dogs, often unreliable stats, and an always-on media in search of salacious stories. Dickey’s immersive and illuminating work deserves a wide audience. (May)
Library Journal
★ 02/15/2016
For almost 200 years pit bulls were considered America's dog, with nicknames such as "nanny dog" and "Yankee Terriers." In the 1970s something went wrong. Journalist Dickey examines the shift from Our Gang's films featuring "Pete the Pup" to monsters "biologically hardwired to kill." The culmination of seven years of research, the title crosses all disciplines from history to genetics; the result is a thoughtful examination of pit bulls and an intense look at ourselves and society. Dickey adeptly scrutinizes the science used to condemn pit bulls to separate fact from fiction and thus weaves a narrative that artfully relays both the hard science and the emotion of the pit bull issue. She also shows how the media and social media kept the "pit bull panic" on a 24-hour loop, preventing the issue from ebbing like previous "breed" panics. The author also articulates how people's expectations of dogs are so high that they are unachievable and the one thing that prevents the most dog bites is education. VERDICT This exceptional, thoroughly researched, and expertly written work is a must for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, 11/23/15.]—Lisa Ennis, Alabama Coll. of Osteopathic Medicine, Dothan
Kirkus Reviews
In her debut, essayist and journalist Dickey, a contributor to the Oxford American, addresses how the prevailing negative image of pit bulls is not only misguided, but also a mark of broader social prejudices. The author notes how iconic images of pit bulls "as snarling beasts" are frequently evoked to market a wide variety of products, from sunglasses to energy drinks. During the 2008 election, Sarah Palin joked that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick. The well-publicized 2007 indictment of NFL quarterback Michael Vick for his involvement in illegal dogfights between pit bulls was not only shocking, but it reinforced the negative image of the dogs. After adopting a pit bull herself, Dickey was shocked to witness the negative responses her pet evoked. Tracing the breed's history in the United States, she learned this was not always the case. The author traces the pit bull's decline from social prominence, partly due to the mythology associated with purebreds. After World War II, she writes, when middle-class Americans began to populate suburbs, status symbols took on a new importance, and "dog fanciers turned breeds into brands…large pedigreed dogs became essential components of the all-American 1950s family." Social stratification was mirrored by the stratification assigned to pedigreed dogs as opposed to mutts, and breeders amplified these ideas. Fads and fashion became significant when selecting a pet, while temperament was devalued; owning a dog without a pedigree carried a social stigma. At the same time, pit bulls, due to their association with dogfights, became suspect in the popular imagination, singled out by media hysteria over isolated incidences of dog bites by the breed. Such coverage in the media contributed to a law in Denver that requires pit pull owners to take out a $300,000 dog-insurance policy. An appealing look at how our relationships with man's best friend provides a mirror of cultural mores.
From the Publisher
An NPR Best Book of 2016
A Boston Globe Best Book of 2016

“This is a very good book… Ms. Dickey has earned her reputation as a first-rate reporter.” —The Wall Street Journal

"Terrific... [Dickey] does more than simply dispel the many myths around pit bulls; she strives to explore what those myths can tell us about ourselves. This beautifully written, heartbreaking book is not just for dog lovers — it's for anyone interested in race, class, history and the complexity of media narratives." —NPR

"Ms. Dickey not only writes about the ebb and flow of public fear and loathing, she takes the reader on a thoroughly comprehensible tour of genetics and behavioral science to explain why breeding never guarantees an individual dog’s personality, and shouldn’t be used to condemn it.... Picking out one breed to blame is neither warranted nor effective, and a reader of her book will be hard put to disagree." —The New York Times

“Brilliant… A powerful and disturbing book that shows how the rise of the killer-pit bull narrative reflects many broader American anxieties and pathologies surrounding race, class, and poverty… A remarkable study of our capacities for cruelty and compassion toward dogs and other humans, and an eloquent argument for abandoning the fears and prejudices that have made pit bulls in particular the victims of mistreatment.” —Christian Science Monitor

“Like the pit bull itself, this book is sturdy, complicated and resists easy categorization… As Dickey exhaustively demonstrates, there is no ‘aggression gene’ and no such thing as a dangerous breed.” —The New York Times Book Review

"In covering a subject that evokes strong, deep-seated emotions, Dickey herself refrains from making sweeping judgments about the pit-bull temperament. She neither condemns nor exalts these dogs. The story of the pit bull is complex, and at times heartbreaking. It’s fraught with cruelty and poverty, but also compassion, generosity, and, occasionally, clear-headed thinking. Somehow, Dickey manages to find hope for the future of this dog and its reputation." —LA Review of Books

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Pariah Dogs

“The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of
 caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.”
—John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” 
On a hot summer day a few years ago, my husband brought home a slightly underweight thirty-eight-pound pit bull with a caramel-and-white coat, a flesh-colored nose, and eyes the color of honey. Carved cheekbones and a cleft in the top of her head gave her face the shape of a small but eager heart. Sean and I nearly passed her by when we drove out to our local animal shelter to look around days before. “Wait a minute,” he said, pointing to the shy, trembling animal as I cooed over a flashier candidate. “What about this one?” 

We did not need another dog. We had been married less than a year and we still didn’t know how best to shape our independent selves to the contours of a shared life. Sean worked long hours at a local hospital and I spent weeks at a time traveling on reporting assignments. Our imperious black pug named Oscar had finally gotten to the age where we no longer worried about leaving him alone in the house for more than an hour. Not worrying was a pastime I had come to enjoy. Any new addition, not to mention one twice Oscar’s size, would upend our lives for a while.

So, why did it we do it? I’m still not quite sure. I can’t say that this little pit bull stared at me, but she never looked away, either. 

In his classic essay “Why Look at Animals?” the critic John Berger writes that the look between man and animal is a bridge between our species and theirs, one of the few that can be built between two creatures that do not share a common language. “The animal scrutinises [man] across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension,” he writes. When man looks back, however, there is an added layer: Man, says Berger,  “is always looking across ignorance and fear.”

I came to appreciate the profound truth of Berger’s words when I told those closest to me that the new dog we had decided to bring home was a pit bull. Even if they hadn’t encountered a pit bull, everyone knew (or thought they knew) the pit bull’s story, which to them was one of human bloodlust, mysterious fighting genes, and uncontrollable canine rage. So many aspects of our culture—from our metaphors (the terms “top dog” and “underdog” originated in the fighting pits), to our music, to our consumer goods, to our politics—reinforce the stereotypes. When vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin joked during her 2008 acceptance speech that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick, the audience laughed knowingly. The great irony of the indelible mark the pit bull has left on our society is that even those who valorize the story—who proudly call themselves pit bull politicians, pit bull lawyers, pit bull reporters—in essence vilify the actual dog at the center of it. 

As for my pit bull, a dog-rescuer friend shook her head. “I wouldn’t do it,” she said solemnly. “I don’t trust those dogs. They will turn on you. And once that switch is turned on, there’s no turning it off.” Like the media, which regularly trumpeted the sordid details of pit bull attacks on humans, my friends framed the issue in terms of strict dichotomies: Are pit bulls dangerous, or are they misunderstood? Are they born vicious, or is it all in how you raise them? Which is stronger: Nature or Nurture? Like the existence of God or the ethics of capital punishment, the “truth” about pit bulls makes for lively debates. But always, underneath my friends’ quailing, was a revealing division: Pit bulls weren’t for people like “us.” Pit bulls belonged to them.


For the better part of two hundred years, the history of bull-and-terrier dogs was illustrious, rather than infamous. Advertisers across the United States clamored to use pit bulls in their campaigns during the 1920s, not because the dogs were believed to be menacing, but because they were thought to be so friendly and appealing to the “average Joe.” They are the only dogs to have appeared on the cover of Life magazine three times, for example. The animals’ widespread popularity among people of all ages, races, and classes owed much to their reputations as plucky, unfussy sidekicks and hardy all-purpose workers. More than that, however, “the dog with the patch over his eye” was seen as quintessentially American: good-natured, brave, resilient, and dependable. By World War I, pit bulls were so beloved as national symbols that we literally and figuratively wrapped them in the flag. We even called them “Yankee terriers.”

Haphazardly classified under almost twenty other names over the years, bull-and-terrier dogs marched onto the field at the Battle of Gettysburg and sniffed out snipers at Normandy. They peeked out of covered wagons bound for California and stumped for women’s suffrage. One greeted visitors at New York City’s first pizzeria in 1907, while another lived in Teddy Roosevelt’s White House. They also accompanied us into the brave new world of modern technology, listening to “his master’s voice” on the recently invented gramophone and riding shotgun in the first cross-country road trip by automobile.

Cultural icons as diverse as Sir Walter Scott, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Anna Pavlova, Helen Keller, Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, Andy Devine, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks, James Thurber, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, and Jimmy Carter proudly kept bull-and-terrier dogs as pets, and years before anyone heard of a German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin, pit bull actors ruled the silver screen. In fact, “Rinty” only appeared in 27 motion pictures, while a pit bull named Pal the Wonder Dog appeared in 224.

Then, in the 1970s, like a bright light snapping off, everything went terribly wrong. The crime of dogfighting exploded in the headlines, and the well-intentioned, well-publicized crusade to stamp out a barbaric but moribund form of animal torture unwittingly made it more popular. Once reporters and misinformed activists cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse, pit bulls were exiled to the most turbulent margins of society, where a cycle of poverty, violence, fear, and desperation had already created a booming market for aggressive dogs. Headlines about pit bull attacks on humans multiplied. Within a few short years, America’s century-old love for its former mascot gave way to the presumption that pit bulls were biologically hardwired to kill.

Meet the Author

BRONWEN DICKEY is an essayist and journalist who writes regularly for the Oxford American. Her work has also appeared in The New York TimesSlate, The Best American Travel Writing 2009Newsweek, and Outside, among other publications. In 2009 she received a first-place Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award and a MacDowell Colony residency grant. She lives in North Carolina.

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Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
pgp More than 1 year ago
Fascinating account of how the pitbull scare began, the lousy science and laughable statistical analysis behind it, and what people are doing to combat it. Also an eye-opening chapter on dog genetics and studies showing how hard it is to accurately "type" a dog by breed with just visual info. The author's standard liberal-journalist politics aside, a very good book if you're interested in the subject.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A worthwhile and illuminating read - recommended!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A few days ago I finished reading a remarkable book. "Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon" by Bronwen Dickey is poetic yet scientific, academic yet straight talking, and as much as it is about dogs it is about people and human nature. For any animal lover and/or those involved with animal rescue and adoption, this is a must read. One paragraph that I can't get out of my mind that I think is the perfect combination of sentences to touch the heart and understand why Bronwen wrote this book: "There may be no creature on earth that lends itself to as much love, hate, and mythmaking as the domestic dog. There is no animal with whom we spend more of our lives, no animal that we see as a truer extension of ourselves. In the thirty-five thousand years since we entered the interspecies partnership that made civilization possible, the literature of dogs has mostly become a literature of longing: for home, for safety, for acceptance, and probably for some flicker of the wildness we ourselves have lost."